Grand Prairie Police Learning New Tools to Respond to Mental Health Needs

Part police officer, part social worker. That's the changing role many officers are having to take on as a growing mental health crisis leads to more 911 calls involving the mentally ill.

Grand Prairie Police are now learning new ways to respond to those calls, and get people the help they need.

On a recent afternoon, the lights and sirens were on at the Grand Prairie Police Department. But the young men and women gathered around squad cars outside were not in trouble. They were there to help officers learn how to interact with people with Down syndrome.

"Whether it's someone with Down syndrome, autism, bipolar or schizophrenia, it's all about understanding how to contact and communicate with them on their level," said Grand Prairie Police Chief Steve Dye.

Chief Dye said more and more, his officers are the first line response for people with mental health needs.

"Let's try to be proactive and when we do respond, hopefully we've got a better understanding of how to handle those situations," said Chief Dye. “Try to slow things down, create a relationship. Try to calm the situation down so we don’t have to immediately go into force.”

The Department just hired its first mental health coordinator. Courtney Runnels is training every officer in crisis intervention and offering more advanced mental health peace officer training, helping them recognize signs and symptoms of mental health and developmental disorders to tailor their response.

"Maybe they can be a little bit more patient, give them some extra time,” Runnels said. “Maybe take a different approach so that they aren't just necessarily assuming that that person is just ignoring them and it escalate quickly."

They're stepping in to fill the gap left by dwindling funding for mental health resources.

"Families don't know what else to do so they call police and police are the ones that intervene," said Runnels.

And rather than filling jails with low-level crimes, they're working to divert those in need to treatment.

"And see if that doesn't fix the problem," said Runnels.

Hoping to catch people early and get them on the right track before a true crisis hits.

Runnels, who is a licensed professional counselor, also responds to calls herself to help with more complex needs and can assist with situations like hostage negotiations.

The Department has plans to expand to a full mental health team that can be on the streets for those calls all the time.

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